Title: On Red Wax and Relics
Author: Elliott Silver
Summary: In some lifetimes, death is the only way to freedom.
Author's Note: This one is for Ginger.
After the first death, there is no other.
Dylan Thomas, 1946
He died on the last Thursday in October, the first truly cold day of autumn that sent the coast running for sweaters and skis after the sweltering summer heatwaves. He was the fifth death in a fourteen-car collision outside Whitburg, South Carolina, a tragedy caused by a working mom in a Suburban on a cell phone. The news report that she saw didnít elaborate how he had died, but when she called the county ER, they simply said that his heart had stopped beating.
Time of death was 3:57pm, October 30, 2002.
Amazingly, it was she who caught the 5:00 news report that night and the five-second blurb that showed minute pictures of those killed in the crash. There were seven total. His picture was the third across, second down, and it was already blurry and grainy without the TV distortion. She dialed Broots' number but then hung up. She already knew.
She left the Centre with only her keys and got in the black Lincoln Towncar. She drove calmly to the second service station in Blue Harbor and flicked off the ignition because she was afraid if she didnít stop, she would drive forever.
She sat there for several minutes, listening to the senselessly calm rhythm of her own breathing, until the chill seeped in through the vents and she realized she was shivering in the expensive cerulean acetate suit she'd bought at Neiman Marcus. She snatched up the silver Nokia and dialed information on her cell phone for the South Carolina hospital. After several transfers, they confirmed her worst fears.
She couldnít believe it. She wouldnít.
She called Sydney then and then after she informed him, she called Broots. Her voice was smooth as sand as she relayed the necessary details. Then she called Lyle and left a message on his office phone because she knew he rarely listened to it.
They had the body shipped to Blue Cove for final analysis and identification; it took thirteen hours for it to arrive and she waited in her office until it did. Although the blood they had drawn in South Carolina was a match for Jarodís type, far be it from the Centre to believe those conclusions without proof of its own. She went to the morgue before the results were back.
She slipped in the back entrance late in the afternoon when everyone was changing shifts. The room was slick-shiny in its aluminum glare; it was cold and it smelled. His body was still on one of the carving tables, with a toe tag and a pale blue sheet tossed over it.
She knew it was him just by the shape of the body under the cloth.
She uncovered him slowly, a gesture so unlike her usual impatient self, she felt almost as if her body had split. He was just as she remembered, the way she had seen him last, not even a month ago. His dark hair was growing out of its short cut, just barely long enough to curl at its ends. His face was leaner, though, his cheekbones strained under the skin, and his closed eyes were cast in the shadows of his lashes.
There was a gash across his temple, maybe two inches long and another on his left leg that was so cleanly sliced she knew it was from glass. But they were scratches compared to the dents in his chest. Even though cause of death was his heart stopping, the Centre had performed an autopsy anyway. The Y incision had been cut into his stiffening skin and looped closed just so they could see that the cardiac muscle under his sternum was still and weighed 378 grams on their stainless steel scales. Perhaps it had just been to hold his heart in their hands.
She sat down on the metal stool next to him and for the first time, stopped herself from believing it wasnít true because hearts did break, they really did. His had, and hers now, and even Evie Sinclairís whom she had known as a child, who had simply fallen from her seat in school one day and cracked a rib that had poked through her aorta. She had been dead in less than a minute. Jarodís heart had stopped beating, and hers too although it had gamely kept on after 3:57 on October 30.
His skin was the color of dogwoods wilting, a white-blue-brown hue. When she touched him, he was cold and she hissed as though she had been kiln-burnt, biting her tongue in the process so that the salt and metal sting of blood spurted fast and thick against her teeth.
Her life shifted the way the sea changed key between tides and she knew in that moment, irrevocably, that it would never shift back.
There was a scar on his right index finger, on the bridge of it, from where heíd gotten it caught in one of the sub-level doors as a child, and a menagerie of other healed wounds that she had catalogued, including what looked like a bullet graze along his waist and a knife stab into his shoulder. She didnít remember those but he had been free for years.
His fingernails were bitten to the quick and there was a white smear in one of them, where he had obviously banged it against something. After a breath, she took his hand in hers, unfurled the stiffening curl of his palm. She traced the calluses that roughed his skin and the life lines that cris-crossed there, ran the tip of her finger across the pads of his fingerprints, stained dark with ink for the Centre Records Office.
His body was all bruises and lacquer.
She knew Lyle and Raines were watching her.
"Itís him," she said simply as she walked past them. There was nothing more for her to say. She was the one who knew him best and last, and the Centre could run all the tests it wanted to, but her judgment was the verdict and they believed her.
She unlocked the front door to her house feeling the bewildering wonder of what she would do with her life after it had so suddenly ended. It was too much for her to contemplate, her thoughts whirring so fast that she felt dizzy and disoriented, though half-coherently she knew it was more likely due to the fact that she hadn't slept or eaten or had a splash of Glenmorangie in over two days.
She had become an alcoholic, she knew it. It had a certain ring, that word Ďalcoholicí, that suave not quite dispersuasive cadence best suited to a loud whisper. There was a part of her that didnít react like the rest of the world, when the sliver of ice dropped into a glass from just the right height Ė too high and the cubes splinter and dilute the drink too quickly, too low and there wasnít that rattle clatter against the bottom. She left the case of Scotch on the kitchen counter without ever bothering to do more than pull out a new bottle when she finished the old one Ė the crate still had its airmail stickers on it from Scotland.
She hardly slept any more. On the outside, she looked very much the same as ever, as the five years ago when Jarod had escaped. She carried a few less pounds since she had stopped fencing and lost muscle tone and her skin seemed pulled tighter over her cheekbones, a fact she surely didnít attribute to her facial cream.
She knew it, saw it all. She still wore her Chanel make-up and bought her Dolce and Gabbana uniforms and trod through the Centre in her four-inch heels. Five years, she thought, and tonight she hadnít yet reached for the Scottish cure for grief. It was not quite a third of the time needed to age good Scotch, less than half the time a good television series ran until syndication, and about the time to decide on a divorce, and now it was over.
She was relieved that there would be no ceremony to attend for his death. She wouldnít have gone even if there were, but Centre policy dictated a quick incineration. She had never investigated what happened beyond that point until today when she had watched his flesh be consumed by the flames and any last trace of hope she may have possessed, burned with it.
Ashes to ashes, she thought darkly and it was the happiest thought sheíd had all day. In the back of her mind, she wanted to be happy for him, because he had done what she never could, completely and irrevocably escape the demons of the Centre, the dark charnel house of terrors and secrets she hid in. But instead, she stared in at herself and started to cry.
"Even you believed it."
She spun around slower than she have because in the end, she didnít care and murder was an easier solution than suicide. Then she saw him.
He slid from the shadows as if he had been borne from them. In so many ways, he had.
She eyed him warily, like prey, like a ghost. And he was reminded that he never felt safe under her gaze, and that was because he felt too much for her and none of it was pretending. He saw the questions in her eyes, the ones she was too tired to ask, the one about how was a dead man standing before her. He would tell her months from then how he did it, how one man died and another lived. He saw she wanted to hit him and when she slugged him with a right hook across his jaw that made her knuckles pop, he wasnít very surprised.
There was red wax across the back of her hand from the candle that she had lit in the Catholic church with the guttering rack of votaries and the bent teenager in the third pew reciting Hail Marys on a psychedelic rosary. She had gotten down on her knees and stared up at the stained glass window; then she had taken an unlit candle and touched wicks with one that was flickering down into a pooling mound of wax. The smear of red trickled across her hand as her candle sparked to life.
"Why?" she asked and after all the unfailingly composed phone calls to Sydney and Broots and Lyle, her voice finally broke. She started hitting him as she started sobbing. Sheíd gotten in one aimed shot; now she was flailing helplessly. She wasnít the woman she had been, but even still, she squirmed out of his grasp and when he caught her wrists after a swift jab to his kidneys, she kicked out at him and they went toppling to the polished wood floor in a melee of arms and legs and the whooshing gush of air from their lungs.
"Why?" she repeated it over and over, through the sobs and spit.
"Because I couldnít watch you die," he answered her as he curled her into him. "I couldnít watch you die like this."
She stopped sobbing and stared over at him, her lashes wet and her eyes glassy like a reflection and he remembered to the day when he decided on his course, the day he had seen that same reflection and saw nothing behind it, the day he realized that the price of his freedom had been her painstakingly slow death, the five years of agony and suffering that had built up so slowly he hadnít even seen it at first.
He took her hand as she sat up off the floor and rubbed angrily at the tear tracks on her face. He felt the rawness seeping through her skin and a little part of him wanted to let go, but he didnít.
Instead, he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. It was only when she rose and he followed her, into her bed, that after five years, he kissed her lips and after five years, tasted the sting-burn of salt like a split wound there.
He wasnít there when she woke a little past seven, nor was he in any of her rooms. He didnít leave a note, a sign, or any other indication he had ever been there, except for the fading scent of their coupling on her bed. There was still a streak of red wax across the back of her hand and when she peeled it off in the shower that washed his sweat from her body, the dye had left a stain on her skin. She went to the Centre and then slept on the couch that night and when the real estate agent called her a little after eight the morning after, he had already lined up a buyer for the house, a family of three. The father was a pediatrician, the mother pregnant with their second child.
She left the Centre with minimal fuss and bother, less fanfare and drama than even she expected and she knew, hauntingly, that times had changed. No one wanted her there anymore, least of all her brother, and over time, she had become quite a liability. In fact, the last act of Brootsí wizardry to grace the institution was to make her "transfer" records miraculously disappear. If anyone attempted to look for her, it would seem as if she too had vanished.
They were all relics of another way and an older war, she and Broots and Sydney, and they didnít fit in any more, didnít understand the new games and rules, and even worse, wouldnít play. She knew how Khruschev and Andropov or any other Soviet who won a few battles but lost the war in the end felt. She too understood a cold war.
She said nothing to Broots nor Sydney; they wouldnít have understood. Broots would leave in a few weeks, he would claim because the new security systems they were implementing were over his level of expertise. For a man who hacked the Pentagon on occasion and other more classified institutions on a regular basis, she had to laugh. Sydney would stay to the end. And in the end, he would become part of the Centre, another one on its endless list of victims.
They were all victims.
In the end, she would have liked to say goodbye to Broots, but common sense stopped her because it was better that way and because she already knew he knew. He had always known.
She packed what she needed, which in the end, was only a few bags of clothes. She took the key to her motherís room, because Tommy was the one who had unlocked it. She took a few books, a dark navy Vera Wang she had always loved, and her motherís ring. She took the sheets from her bed.
She made sure her accounts were all paid fully from the automated banking system she used and then liquidated her assets, most of them, and transferred others into an untraceable account in the Caribbean. Swiss accounts were too high profile these days.
That afternoon, she traded in the Centreís Lincoln Towncar for a new Chevy Trailblazer in Sapphire; the blue SUV had not quite 7 miles on it and she paid in cash.
She was wearing Manolo Blahnik square-toed boots and indigo jeans and when she walked out of the dealership, felt the world as it spun on. Suddenly, again, she was part of the spin and she felt its tilt as she stood straight.
She tossed her Glock onto the passenger seat beside her, although it no longer made her feel safe or guaranteed her state of mind. She left from the Chevy dealership not five miles from the Centre, driving away from all she had known without a second glance. She stopped in Pessaqua, New Jersey for gas and the Radio Shack where she bought a new Nokia and enough minutes to last her until she got wherever she was going. She went out to her car, dropped her old cell phone behind the front tire, and backed out quickly. It was 3:02 pm; she hit Philadelphia during rush hour and by 6pm, she was cruising out the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 74 mph, possibly the slowest she had ever driven on a highway.
When she hit Akron, she traded the Trailblazer for another new model, a Tahoe in sable black. It had 12 miles on it and again, she paid in cash using a name that wasnít her own as the sales rep hit on her and she wished sheíd left the Glock tucked in her waistband. She was wearing blue jeans and her leather jacket with her sunglasses tucked on them and bought a one-liter Pepsi from the Mobil Mini-Mart there.
She drove through Ohio and then south through wheat fields and razed corn stalks. She took Route 70 and stayed on it. The blue sky flared ever outward.
She sent Broots a postcard from Topeka, unsigned. At a corn dog stand with a pink and blue awning, she stood over a trashcan in the far corner of the lot and snapped her CheckCard, her health insurance card, and shredded her last business card. Last of all, she snapped her Centre Security Clearance card until it broke in two razor-edged plastic pieces. On other days before, she might have had different thoughts, but now she just let the pieces fall into the trash and got back in the Tahoe. She didnít write Sydney.
4 am to 6:30 am was the worst time to be on the road. She wanted a drink but she kept driving. 70 spanned on before her endlessly and it was only when she hit Utah that she went north on 15 and hooked west again on 80 just below Salt Lake City.
She hit the Rockies and plowed through them, through towns that consisted of no more than two ramshackle cabins and a country store every hundred miles. She kept a close eye on the gas gauge.
She arrived in Northern California just before dusk and drove up the Pacific Coast highway. She braked into one of the pull-offs overlooking the craggy ocean and for the first time in years, her fingers itched for a piano. She waited in the Tahoe until the two cars of tourists madly shuttering pictures were miles down the highway. She couldnít remember ever waiting so patiently before in her life and it made her wonder how Jarod had ever done it.
The world was all wind and dark clouds skidding in over the twilight sea.
It was neither light nor dark.
She stood on the edge of the cliff, where the land met sea and everything fell away. Below her the ocean broke in white-edged waves and in the distance, on the crackling air, she thought she heard rumbling in the sky, that lofty place where thunder came from and things disappeared.
There were moments that she would remember always, but as she hurled the silver Glock into the swirling waters, it was not one of them. She threw it so hard that a tendon throughout her lower back screamed plaintively. She couldnít see the gun splash; didnít stay to watch.
She slipped back into the Tahoe as the first drops of rain plashed over the hood of the car and the water surged down with such force, even the windshield wipers were unable to mop it out of her vision. The roads were slick as the storm washed the oil from the black surface; she took the ridged turns at 30 mph. She was so close.
He was waiting on the porch when she sped down the long vineyard driveway fast enough to scatter mud all along the sides of the SUV. And by the look of the stubble on his jaw and the crushed khakis, he had been waiting for a while.
He had been waiting five years.
Butterflies pooled in her stomach, their gossamer wings banging against the walls of her furiously pounding heart as she got out of the Tahoe stiffly. She hadnít had a sip of anything alcoholic since his death, nor had she ever stopped for Ibuprofen along the way. She hurt like hell, but she felt better. She felt alive and as she watched him come for her, hadnít felt that way in a long time.
Jarod rose from the wooden chair heíd been sitting in and came down the five porch steps to where she stood by the Chevyís hood, tendrils of its overrun warmth floating around her. Each step creaked as he came to her and in the end, she knew hearts didnít break. At most, they simply bent.
When he touched her, she took him by the hands and wrapped her fingers around his wrists like the rubber ties nurses laced around your arm to poke out veins. His pulse squealed out heavy and sonorous against the pads of her shaking fingers, as punctual as the thud of hand-cast churchbells.
He was joltingly, unsparingly alive and his first words were beautiful.
"So how does it feel to be free?"
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